Canada’s Tailings Ponds

What was once boreal forest and fresh water is now one of Canada’s tailings ponds. These tailings ‘ponds’ are so large, they can be seen from space.

Canada's tailings ponds
© Greenpeace / Eamon Mac Mahon

Q: What the heck is a tailings pond?
A: It’s the toxic wastewater, chemicals, sand and clay that’s left over after separating heavy crude oil (bitumen) from the soil in what are commonly referred to as Canada’s tar sands.

Wikipedia: "Tailings, also called mine dumps, slimes, tails, refuse, leach residue, or slickens,[1] are the materials left over after the process of separating the valuable fraction from the uneconomic fraction (gangue) of an ore."

I recently viewed a film titled Petropolis and was shocked by how little I knew about the actual size of this industrial misadventure. I had clearly been sucked in by the oil companies’ environmentally-concerned TV ads. I suspect it has required a massive public relations budget to keep the full scope of this pillage out of the news.

Have you watched or read ‘The Lord of the Rings’? Do you remember when Saruman the White ordered the destruction of the forests? Even the words of J. R. R. Tolkien and the images of Peter Jackson would have a very difficult time portraying the devastation clearly shown in Petropolis.

A few things that just don’t make sense to me:

  • it requires about three barrels of water to produce every barrel of bitumen, that’s apparently enough water to service a city with a population of two million
  • the tar sands daily consumption of natural gas is enough to heat four million homes
  • carbon dioxide emissions equal the total emissions of every car in Canada
  • we’re getting rid of trees that reduce pollution to produce oil that increases pollution

Q: Who is profiting from this devastation of Canada’s environment?
A: The oil and gas companies. According to The Toronto Sun 20120409 (VINCENT MCDERMOTT, QMI AGENCY), “In the University of Alberta’s Parkland Institute study, completed in mid-March (2012), the Edmonton-based think-tank concluded the oil and gas industry has raked in $260-billion in pre-tax profits since 1986, while the public received less than $25-billion — less than 6% of the total value.”

The oil companies would have us believe that the Canadian tar sands are a wonderful resource, after all it’s the second largest oil reserve in the world. I’m not so sure because there are clearly enormous environmental costs to this type of industrialization. When oil prices were lower, the tar sands had potential, but it was simply to expensive to separate the heavy crude from the sand and the clay. Today, high oil prices have made heavy crude oil extraction economically feasible, but it doesn’t appear to me that technology has progressed to the point where oil can be produced in an environmentally friendly manner. That plus, what about the environmental impact of the required, very controversial, pipelines.

Aren’t we trying to move away from carbon-based fuels? Wouldn’t it be far less expensive and far more friendly to our environment to build solar farms and wind farms? What about solar panels on every home and garage? There must be a clever way to use the tar sands, on a small scale, to help us fund Canada’s transition to green technologies.

Update (20120530): Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources, Joe Oliver, referring to Canada’s tailing’s ponds stated, “…you’ll be able to drink from them and you’re gonna be able to fish from them…”. He was interviewed on CBC’s Power and Politics by Evan Solomon. My question to Mr. Oliver is, “When?” Perhaps hundreds or even thousands of years from now that may be possible. I suspect Mr. Oliver will issue a correction in the near future, because, bluntly, if he believes what he said, he’s been drinking far too much of Big Oil’s Kool Aid.